U.S. Poised To Ease Biofuel Quotas

Just as scientists are making leaps and bounds in the technology behind biofuel production, opening the way for cheaper and more efficient clean fuel sources, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is backing further and further away from biofuel quotas. In the same month that scientists have announced a major breakthrough in biomass processing, the EPA has scrapped a plan to raise biofuel quotas in the coming year thanks to pressure from Big Oil.

This month a group of scientists based in the United Kingdom made a breakthrough in biofuel production that will make the process significantly more efficient and environmentally friendly. Their innovation in breaking down biomasses will also lead to better production processes for cosmetics, medicines, and more-easily recycled plastics.

Traditional bioprocessing is extremely costly and time consuming, but the team of scientists from Imperial College London claims to have discovered a way to break down plant-based biomass 30 times faster than current methods. If their new technique is applied industry-wide and clean-burning biofuel becomes the standard, fuel-related carbon emissions could fall a staggering 80 - 100 percent.

However, don’t expect such a sweeping green transition to happen anytime soon. In the same month that Imperial College London published these amazing findings, across the Atlantic we seem to be moving in quite the opposite direction. Just last week the EPA decided to scrap an assertive measure to impose higher biofuel quotas for refiners in 2019.

Less than a month ago, when the EPA’s biofuels quota plan was moving full speed ahead, the future of biofuels looked more promising than ever. After a roller coaster of a year for biofuels under the reign of Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration, things were starting to turn around for renewables. Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, backed by his state’s powerful corn industry, was fighting hard for biofuels and making serious headway. At the same time, the EPA was poised to announce a nearly 20 billion gallon biofuels target.

Now Pruitt is gone amidst political pressure and a seemingly endless wave of scandals (not to mention being the subject of thirteen federal investigations) and now, thanks to pressure from the oil industry, the plan for higher 2019 biofuel quotas for large refineries has been thrown to the wayside. If successful, the plan would have raising the Obama-era renewable blending requirements from 10.88 percent to 11.76 percent for a reluctant refining industry. This proposal was an effort to make up for the vast biofuels shortcomings brought on by the Trump administration’s waiver-happy EPA, which has granted tens of millions of dollars’ worth of waivers to refineries over the past year.

Many biofuel backers are holding out hope that they will receive a fresh start in a post-Pruitt EPA, once the dust settles. Those optimists may not want to hold their breath. It’s hard to foresee any big turnaround in the immediate future with attorney Andrew Wheeler acting as Pruitt’s stand-in. Wheeler, like Pruitt has a history of skepticism when it comes to climate change, and also like Pruitt leans very conservative. Wheeler also has a cozy past with fossil fuels, having worked as a lobbyist for the coal industry.

It’s been a wild ride for biofuels over the past few years, with amazing advancements in technology like the discoveries of Imperial College London among countless other promising leads, but just as many setbacks with the tremendous force of Big Oil pushing back against any new blending quotas or regulations. For every Chuck Grassley, championing the agricultural industry and biofuels, there are many more Scott Pruitts, Donald Trumps, and Andrew Wheelers, who rail against any regulation especially the green ones, and see biofuels as a major threat to oil, and therefore the entire economy.

Haley Zaremba for OilPrice.com